Dawn of New Era : KSC Clock Adds Up the Minutes of the First SpaceX Launch to ISS
If Project Constellation was the clear victim of President Obama’s Kennedy Space Center address, the immediate beneficiary was without a doubt the International Space Station program. Slated for de-orbit as soon as 2016 in some Constellation planning documents, in order to create a funding “wedge” to pay for the former program, the Station’s lifetime was extended to 2020 as result of the new policy, and now the program is all but certain to be extended to at least 2024.
With the Space Shuttle already head for retirement, the lynchpin to making good on the Station’s extended life lay in the Commercial Orbital Transportation and Commercial Resupply Programs. Five years after the fact, and with SpaceX having just launched its 7th Dragon spacecraft to ISS (6 under CRS and 1 under COTS), it is easy to forget that as of April 2010, SpaceX had yet to launch a single Falcon 9 booster, much less a Dragon spacecraft.
Today Dragon has established itself as the indispensable key to conducting science aboard ISS, replacing the Shuttle’s role as the only craft capable of returning meaningful amounts of payload. Increasingly those payloads include “sortie” experiments which fly up with Dragon, are unloaded, the experiments performed and then loaded back for the return trip. As a result, the pace of science conducted aboard ISS has increased dramatically. This is a change nearly every researcher launching their experiments to ISS has been quick to point out, and which is one backed up by the steadily increasing number of hours allotted to science, as opposed to maintenance, operations and the challenges of living in space.
Is it worth the roughly $3 billion per year expense? The answer to that question is a difficult one, and it seems likely to remain a point of contention for many years to become. Increasingly, there is an argument which can be made which suggests that any calculation of the Station’s long term value must take into account the agreeable unintended consequences of what SpaceX is contributing to the national capability. To the extent that company’s success can be attributed to the support granted by NASA and ISS, the benefits could be considered to flow as well. The end of the present year may well find the United States with both a reusable launch capability, as well as a remarkably affordable heavy lift booster. Neither will have cost the taxpayer a dime.
On another level, the October 28th 2014 loss of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft on the Orb-3 resupply mission, what some might have taken as a sign of the risks of turning Station cargo supply over to private industry, has turned into something else. To its credit, and bound by the contractual requirements of the CRS program, Orbital Sciences quickly contracted with United Launch Alliance for a makeup flight to be launched by the venerable Atlas V booster. Amazingly, that mission is likely to take place before the first anniversary of the loss that made it necessary in the first place. Along the way, something very interesting has happened regarding ISS itself. Freed from operating under some of the constraints of the Shuttle program; both academia and private industry have gradually begun to take notice of the unique capabilities of the Space Station to host both internal and external payloads. Recent cargo flight have seen experiments such as the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), a two way laser communications experiment, take advantage of the Station as essentially a free flying satellite bus which can host an ever changing variety of payloads. As with CASIS sponsored experiments, researchers have stressed the fact that the agency has done a noteworthy job of streamlining what was once a burdensome process.
Whether or not that is a direct reflection of President Obama’s April 2010 announcement is an open question, but there is little doubt that if ISS and Commercial Resupply had not been given a resounding vote of confidence at that point, the outcome could have been very different. For all the accomplishments ISS and its commercial resupply program have generated in the last five years, there is still a perplexing problem which traces in part back to the President’s speech. Congress has been remarkably intransigent in its reluctance to fully fund the equally necessary and potentially even more transformational Commercial Crew program. Here again, it is sometimes difficult to remember that when President Obama essentially placed the fate of ISS on the unproven notion of commercial taxi service to ISS, that there was little to point to in its favor, other than the outrageous expense and embarrassing blunders of NASA’s own efforts in developing the Ares 1 booster.
Whether it was foresight, fortune, or even indifference, and there is a case to be made for all three, the President is due no small measure of credit on this point. Despite (mostly) Republican opposition, which was once again on display during back to back House and Senate budget hearings last week, there is no credible suggestion that either of the Commercial Crew vendors; Boeing or SpaceX, will not perform with aplomb. Having endured a gap that might have already ended if not for space state representatives, the United States is set to emerge from the post Shuttle era with not one, but two dissimilar and redundant crew vehicles, both of which dramatically eclipse Russian or Chinese capabilities. In some ways, American dominance of the final frontier will have never been so profound.
In other ways it will have never been so badly out of synch with the times. In reviewing the KSC address five years after the fact, one is struck by the extent to which President Obama was offering a heavy dose of research into advanced propulsion in order to support a heavy lift architecture decision which would have been made this year.
“There are also those who criticized our decision to end parts of Constellation as one that will hinder space exploration below [sic] low Earth orbit. But it’s precisely by investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies that we will have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities…”
“But I want to repeat — I want to repeat this: Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I’m challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And we’ll give you the resources to break through these barriers. And I know you will, with ingenuity and intensity, because that’s what you’ve always done.”
Instead, what the nation got was a heavy lift system in SLS which while moderately changed from the Ares V planned under Constellation, is still anything but innovative. To the extent that it was the President who sought to change the status quo through with the KSC address, the responsibility for failing to do so must be attributed to him as well.
President Obama is hardly the first occupant of the White House to see his plans run up against the determination of representatives in Congress who cannot see beyond their district’s boundaries, but that is precisely the point at which leadership is required. In this case, it was not forthcoming. Here too, Obama’s legacy seems little different from that of his predecessor, who after announcing the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, seemed to give the subject little further consideration. In both cases, Congressional inertia took over, and perhaps unsurprisingly what resulted was almost exactly the same; an overly expensive and outdated mega rocket and companion spacecraft whose benefits to the States of Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Florida are a lot more clear-cut than its benefits to the expanding future in space that both men extolled.
Next: The Conclusion